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Talking Russia, Syria, cyber warfare with Mark Warner

mark warnerIs there more to the investigation into Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 election than what meets the eye? Mark Warner seems to think so.

Warner is the vice chairman of, and the ranking Democrat on, the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is spearheading one of the two key congressional investigations into the Russia-2016 election affair –notably, the one that hasn’t come across as a Benny Hill-style farce.

Warner addressed the latest on the investigation in a sitdown interview with News Virginian politics reporter Bob Stuart and me on Thursday over milkshakes at an Augusta County eatery during a stop on a busy day of events in the Shenandoah Valley.

The general sense that I got from talking with Warner is it’s too early to tell if the investigation is going to legitimize the notion from some that the affair is this generation’s Watergate – sorry, liberal and progressive friends reading along and hoping, against hope.

Where things seem to stand now is, to borrow from former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and his scale of knowns and unknowns – there are some known knowns, some known unknowns, and a trove of unknown unknowns.

“I’m not saying this is the same, but remember, Watergate was a bungled break-in to one file cabinet at the DNC. One of the witnesses we had at our hearing, 10 days ago, whatever, said the Russians have only released somewhere around 5 to 10 percent of all the information that they have,” Warner said.

If that’s true, this is only get a lot deeper, a lot uglier – with more WikiLeaks, more committee chairs Ubering to the White House in the middle of the night, more partisan posturing from Trump allies about fake news and Democrats trying to overturn the results of an election, all of which seems to play into the narrative that Russia wants to propagate about the legitimacy of Western democracies.

“One of the things one of our witnesses said at the hearing was, it doesn’t help when then-candidate Trump was basically saying up until the election exactly what the Russian propaganda was, which is that the American elections are rigged. Because what Putin wants to do is he wants to show, not just in America, but in France and Germany and elsewhere, hey, listen, democracy is not so good, look at these countries, their elections are rigged,” Warner said.

This in mind, a key for Warner is protecting the credibility of the investigation, and central to that is maintaining the sense that the endgame is not any kind of predetermined result.

“The best-case scenario would be that we’d find the truth, that we feel at the end of the day we have the truth, and we have a 15-0 report that we all agree that this is what happened,” Warner said.

Warner would seem to be the Democrat in the Senate best-positioned to put a bipartisan stamp on the investigation. The self-styled “radical centrist” is criticized on the left as being basically a DINO – Democrat In Name Only – and actually, honestly, Warner rather revels in what his critics think is an kneecapping insult.

“I got a lot of grief for years for being too bipartisan, especially from Democrats. Finally, all that kind of investment is actually coming back. If I was a hardcore partisan, it wouldn’t have come back,” Warner said.

Warner, wearing that DINO cloak, quickly followed himself on that point to make sure to credit Republicans on the Intelligence Committee for doing their part to “do this right.”

“You get these classified briefings about what happened, the hearings, the stories that have not yet been reported, and you kind of go, holy heck, we’ve got to do this absolutely right,” Warner said.

The stakes seem to be raising with the latest imbroglio involving Russia, not as a foreign power efforting to intervene in our election process, but more in its traditional role as Cold War adversary. The decision by President Trump last week to launch cruise missiles at targets inside Syria in retaliation for a chemical attack carried out by the Assad regime against civilian targets has raised the ire of Putin, a key Assad ally.

I asked Warner directly if he thinks it is possible that the strikes were ordered by Trump as a sort of “Wag the Dog”-style diversion to provide political insulation on the Russia-election investigation, and he dismissed the suggestion immediately.

“I hope you’re totally wrong. I’ve seen no evidence. I hope and pray you’re wrong,” he said, before adding: “I’ve heard other people raise that point.”

Regarding the recent actions by Trump in Syria, Warner said he “supported what the president did, but I also question, what is the strategy now?’

“Especially Syria, more than any other issue, it’s so easy to criticize Obama or Trump or anybody on Syria, but boy, oh boy, it’s really hard to figure out what the right thing to do is at this point on Syria,” Warner said.

“I’ve said this repeatedly, I think Obama made a mistake in 2013 when he drew the red line and didn’t fulfill,” Warner said. “Now you’ve got Assad with his allies, ISIL, you’ve got some of the groups that we’ve backed, a lot of them are simply mercenaries, 75 different groups. The one group that are actually good fighters are the Kurds, but you can’t support them too much because you’ve got the Turks. You got an answer?”

Syria is another one of those unknown unknowns. Among the scarier known unknowns to come up in the Intelligence Committee investigation is that we know we need to come up with some sort of overarching cyber defense strategy, but don’t know what we need to do to make one work.

“I was over the other day at Langley, and saw some of our top-line fighter jets, and asking how the competition is doing, and how the Chinese feel like they have hacked into a lot of our technology, and they’re able to kind of duplicate some of our technology for a lot cheaper,” Warner said. “And you think about all of what the Russians have done in the United States, France, Germany, in terms of trying to affect these elections, it’s what, 2 percent of the cost of an aircraft carrier? We spend $600 billion on defense, they spend sixty. They can’t compete with us in a shooting war, but in a cyber war, we are in many ways more vulnerable because we’re more technology-dependent.”

You clicked on this story thinking I was going to tell you that the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee has found a smoking gun that will lead to the impeachment of the President of the United States.

That’s what I was hinting at, right, in the lede about there being more than what meets the eye in this Russia-election investigation?

Warner stressed that it’s “premature” to assume that the investigation will go in any specific direction, so I think we should leave any talk about this being our generation’s Watergate at that.

What I walked away from the chat about politics over milkshakes concerned about is that, however they’re doing it, whoever they may or may not be colluding with, Russian interests are actively trying to undermine the U.S. and the West, the means they’re employing, given our technology dependence, seem pretty damned effective, and we’re all so focused on defending our inch of political turf that we’ve hamstrung ourselves from being able to do anything to stop it.

For what it’s worth, I consider this a known known, and frightening, at that.

Column by Chris Graham

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